Defining the causal relationship between a microbe and encephalitis is complex. Over 100 different infectious agents may cause encephalitis, often as one of the rarer manifestations of infection. The gold-standard techniques to detect causative infectious agents in encephalitis in life depend on the study of brain biopsy material; however, in most cases this is not possible. We present the UK perspective on aetiological case definitions for acute encephalitis and extend them to include immune-mediated causes. Expert opinion was primarily used and was supplemented by literature-based methods. Wide usage of these definitions will facilitate comparison between studies and result in a better understanding of the causes of this devastating condition. They provide a framework for regular review and updating as the knowledge base increases both clinically and through improvements in diagnostic methods. The importance of new and emerging pathogens as causes of encephalitis can be assessed against the principles laid out here.